Monday, August 13, 2018

Let’s Play a Game: Why Games Are Important to Our Students

Kristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, TX.

“If I gave you one million dollars that you had to spend in one day, what would you buy?”

A question like this is typical in a simple game reviewing second conditional statements or subordinate clauses. One student reads the question, another student answers it using the grammar form that is being reviewed, then asks the next student a variation of the question. A class may even see how fast they can repeat this process for an added thrill. A simple game like this is found in nearly every ESL/EFL class.

Playing games is one surefire way to increase student engagement. Jane McGonigal quotes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011). The quote reads “One way or another, if human evolution is to go on, we shall have to learn to enjoy life more thoroughly,” (p. 17). It stands to reason that students enjoy class more if we play games, as any experienced teacher knows this. The quote comes from Csíkszentmihályi’s 1975 book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games.

Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Swiss author Johan Huizinga was originally published in German in 1944 then in English is 1949. He says, “[C]ulture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning…In the twin union of play and culture, play is primary” (p. 46). This is often demonstrated in our basic language classes where the lingua franca is still in its infant stages. Students can still play a game, even if they cannot formulate a simple sentence yet. From this game, the class culture is born.

My point is that games should be more central in our classes. They inspire enthusiasm, engagement, and creativity. With this in mind, I recently tasked my students with a project: Each had to create an original game using whatever props needed, but the game had to let everyone in class play at the same time. Every student had to present their game on a certain day, and then we played each game as a class. Truly, I saw some ingenious creations.

To build background knowledge prior to this assignment, I showed students how to play Go Fish. The next day, we played Hang Man. The following day, we played Monopoly. After three days of playing different types of games, I asked students to choose one of the games we played and write down what they remembered from each game. While students read to the class what they wrote, I wrote the game words they used that would be helpful when students had to write their own game instructions, such as “turn,” “cards,” “pass.” This way, I established a working vocabulary; I also filled in as needed, adding words such as “deal” and “shuffle” they may not be familiar with but could describe.

In pairs, students brainstormed what characteristics the three games had in common. After sharing these and writing them on the board, students created their own version of game theory. These are the elements they discovered:

  • A person could win.
  • A person could lose.
  • You had to be near the other players to play (you couldn’t step out in the hall to make a phone call and still be playing).
  • You didn’t have to play if you didn’t want to (but why wouldn’t you?)

These elements are supported in McGonigal’s book. She says games have four main qualities. They are voluntary, they have a system to tell you how you are doing (points, money, cards…), there is a clear objective (how to win), and the rules are clear (2011, p. 20-21). Huizinga includes additional characteristic of play that apply to games: There is a clear beginning and end, and there is also a designated space for it. Though Huizinga’s book was written before video games, I assert that virtual space is still a designated space since you have to be logged on to play (p. 9-10). All of these elements created our class’s game theory.

When I assigned the project, I gave students parameters that you may find useful if you decide to try this in your class:

  • I requested students write in second person, though I could have requested they write in third.
  • The instructions had to be written statements, and imperatives were not permitted (since we hadn’t covered those in class yet).
  • Instructions had to be complete, meaning they had to include contingencies. What if a player doesn’t have the correct card/answer/number? Can she pass or choose again?
  • I also recommended students beta test their games with friends so they could make improvements as needed.

When the day to present arrived, students seemed nervous. Some just brought dice or playing cards; others brought elaborately drawn game boards. Each student presented her game and shared the instructions. Then we played each game until there was a winner.

As technology advances, games permeate new parts of our lives, such as job training and shopping. We can use this as inspiration for devising new ways of engagement. As from this example, we don’t have to be the source for all engagement, either. Our students are bright and creative; giving them a chance to create games inspired them to reach beyond our usual classroom activities.


Huizinga, J. (2016). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Kettering, OH:
Angelico Press. (English edition originally printed in 1949.)
McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change
the world. New York: Penguin Books


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